Learning to unfold and understand Sacred Scripture

“We may be very different from the ancient people who wrote the Bible,” says theologian and author Dr. Michael Cameron, “but we share some vital similarities with them.”


It is truly a marvel that the Bible can be so utterly indispensable for Judeo-Christian faith, and at the same time be so mysterious, overwhelming, and even incomprehensible. The riches and depths of the biblical texts surely goes beyond our understanding; after thousands of years, there are still new insights to be gleaned, surprising facets of historical context to be uncovered, and unexpected inspirations from its pages.

Even the greatest and most brilliant Scripture scholars recognize that the Bible is not something that can be taken at face value alone. It is a library, featuring texts from every imaginable genre, written over the course of many hundreds of years, over a wide sweep of geographical and cultural contexts.

Dr. Michael Cameron has written a short and eminently readable and informative book titled Unfolding Sacred Scripture: How Catholics Read the Bible (Liturgical Training Publications, 2016), which offers a bird’s-eye-view survey of Scripture and the Catholic tradition of biblical interpretation. While most Catholics are familiar with the Sunday lectionary readings, the Bible as a whole can feel largely foreign and unapproachable. Dr. Cameron, a professor of theology at the University of Portland, in Oregon, guides the reader through Scripture in a very basic sense, and cracks open the door to the vast world of the Bible and its interpretation.

Dr. Cameron recently corresponded by e-mail with Catholic World Report about his recent book, the place and importance of Scripture, the influence of St. Augustine on his reading of Scripture, and his favorite passages from the Bible.

CWR: Where did the idea for this book come from? Is this something you have wanted to write about, or were you approached by the publisher?

Dr. Michael Cameron: Several factors played a part. Much of my graduate training focused on Scripture; I began doctoral studies in New Testament, but then moving to study early Christianity I kept a focus on how the Bible was read in the Church’s early centuries. Since coming to the University of Portland I have taught a core course to undergraduates introducing the Bible for the sake of doing theology. I had thought about adapting that course for something in print for some time, but things got going when Liturgy Training Publications approached me about contributing to their new series called “Liturgy and the Bible.” I’ve had a passion for helping ordinary people understand the basics of the Bible for some time. When I worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago in the late 1990s, I established the Chicago Catholic Scripture School, a 4-year program in Bible basics for laypeople that is still operating. I have been a reader at Mass, and have worked to train readers in my parish. So graduate study of the Bible and teaching the Bible to undergrads came together with the invitation from LTP and the desire to help lay pastoral ministers understand the Bible in the setting of Mass.

CWR: You were raised a Catholic, but were away from the Church for a time, even being ordained a Presbyterian minister. How did your experience in the Protestant world affect your understanding and passion for Sacred Scripture?

Dr. Cameron: Well, I would say that among Protestants there is a perception of immediacy to the Bible as a resource for one’s faith, and a sense that everything one needs is there, and that a responsibility to read and understand Scripture exists among ordinary people. For them, typically, knowing Scripture is a matter of spiritual life and death, so to say, and to be a good minister and preacher you have to be on your game as a student and teacher of Scripture. Of course there is a long Protestant tradition stemming from the Reformation that strongly emphasizes the Word, to some extent at the expense of Sacrament. Though many Protestant churches baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, for many the Word is their primary sacrament of communion with God. (Let me add that, in my limited perception, it seems to me that Catholics and Protestants are converging on this; beginning with Vatican II Catholicism has been reemphasizing and rediscovering the Word, while Protestants have been re-learning the meaning of Sacrament.)

Another element is the development of historical critical reading that happened mainly in Protestant circles with not a little grief. Overall this has been a healthy development, and in any case it enables dialogue with the modern world. The Catholic Church was slow to embrace that development, but has now done so—see the hugely important 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. But Protestantism as a movement was deeply grounded in the Bible, or at least certain way of seeing the Bible, and that was deeply powerful for me.

Now, I have to say that my experience growing up Catholic was like many others in the Church born before Vatican II. When I was growing up, the Catholic Church did not emphasize personally reading the Bible as a vital nutrient of faith. This despite the fact, unknown to me, of centuries of biblically drenched Catholic tradition that savored the Bible from the days of early Christianity on, especially in Catholic mystical and prayer traditions. Indeed, I can remember inheriting a certain danger and wariness about reading the Bible for oneself. To be fair, no one ever forbade this, and we had a big illustrated, Confraternity version family Bible in our house, which promised 300 days’ indulgence for reading. But it is clear now that that sensibility was a part of an overreaction to Protestantism that characterized the church for 400+ years until Vatican II. The Council sought to correct this, and to offer a very different vision that sought to open up scripture “lavishly” for all people. Nevertheless, great historic changes take a long time to implement. There really has been a revolution in certain circles of the Church, but we are still working to bring this different vision to everyone in the pews. I think it’s not unfair to say that most Catholics haven’t yet really felt the change in their bones.

Yes, I spent some time in Protestantism in my early adulthood, when I felt a strange mystical attraction to the texts of the Bible as vital to my now conscious personal faith. Later I remembered that was first inspired by reading a text from early Catholic Christianity, the Confessions of St. Augustine! Later I learned that love for the words of Scripture ooze from every page written by Irenaeus and Origen and Augustine. But I returned to my Catholic roots when I realized with the help of early Christian teachers and more recent ones like John Henry Newman that Scripture goes hand in hand with Catholic tradition; it gives us a living and real historical link to the whole Church back to the days of the Apostles. Still, I learned a tremendous lot about faith and Scripture in Protestant circles for which I will always feel indebted and grateful. Since returning to the Church almost 30 years ago, I’ve always felt that I brought back with me the best of my Protestant experience (while dreaming of the day when we will return to each other). An element of that is my urgent sense that a practice of reading and praying over Scripture is utterly necessary to feed the full life of faith.

CWR: Why is it important to “unfold Sacred Scripture”?

Dr. Cameron: I like the book title’s use of the word “unfolding.” We sometimes see Bible study materials use language like “unleashing” or “breaking open” the word of God. I hope I’m not nitpicking, but I think those wrenching metaphors that suggest freeing an animal or whacking a piñata don’t really capture our relationship to the Word, or the work we are called to do in reading. The word “unfold” suggests the surprise moment of receiving a letter from a friend. It pictures gently and gradually discovering something that was thoughtfully prepared, carefully packaged, neatly handed over, and lovingly transmitted. The receiver now “reverse-imitates” the action of the sender who personally folded it up and addressed it. Our act of unfolding is an “opening”—Luke uses this word to speak of how Jesus explained Scripture to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. “Unfolding” or “opening” is an extended process over time that includes commitment, concentration, skill, and practice. This shouldn’t be surprising, since almost every really good thing in life requires those elements: think about the work that goes into making a really good meal, for instance, or into building a house, or into becoming really good at one’s job. “Unfolding” is something that we gradually learn how to do, lured on by the prospect of enjoying the deep reward when we know how to do something well.

CWR: One of the paintings on the book’s cover is of St. Augustine, on whom you are somewhat of an expert. Is there particular insight he can give into how Catholics read the Bible? Has he had a special influence on the tradition of Catholic scriptural interpretation.

Dr. Cameron: St. Augustine wrote a short little gem of a book to a discouraged teacher, one of my favorite of all his works, called On Instructing Beginners in the Faith. It uses a metaphor from the ancient world that is similar to “unfolding.” Even though by Augustine’s time people were using books with pages that turn, just as we do (called a “codex,” which early Christianity helped to popularize), he likened teaching Scripture’s deep content to the act of unrolling a parchment scroll. Back then a cabinet held the scrolls containing different books of the Bible, and for teaching you would pull out one of the scrolls and lovingly unfurl it in order to admire its physical beauty and learn its spiritual message. That reverent unrolling is what Unfolding Sacred Scripture tries to do.

St. Augustine was actually not a biblical scholar, even by the standards of his own day, like Origen or Jerome. But for us he was something even better: the model of an extremely diligent Bible student. His writings often feature wall-to-wall mosaics of scripture passages (look at the opening paragraphs of Book 11 of Confessions, for instance), where he has assembled, according to his thorough grasp of Scripture’s overall unity and purpose, texts that he has meditated on deeply. So he is a model of reading for us.

But Augustine also teaches us about how the Bible works. On Instructing Beginners in the Faith has wonderful passage, which I summarize in the book, where he briefly describes his framework for reading Scripture. Everything in the Bible is interrelated, he writes, for it “either tells of Christ or counsels love.” That is, everything either promises or recalls the advent of Jesus, who came both to show us and to empower us: that is, he came to show us God’s love for us, and to show the love that we should have for God and our neighbor; and secondly, he came to empower us to practice that love by both enacting it upon the cross and by giving it to us in his grace. This amounts to saying that Jesus is both the fulfillment of Scripture, as well as our key to understanding Scripture—all of which points to and inspires Christian love.

Augustine’s other classic statement on Christ and love as the key to Scripture appears in his handbook for reading entitled On Teaching Christianity (De doctrina christiana). Augustine says there that when you have arrived Christ-like love in reading a passage of Scripture, then you know you have understood it; but until you have arrived at that love, you haven’t understood it. This is a pretty good rule of thumb for learning how to read and understand the Bible, even if the work of reading gets more complicated, as of course it soon does.

CWR: St. Augustine said, “The New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed, the Old Testament is in the New revealed.” Do you find this insight to be true? Is this something you tried to show in the book?

Dr. Cameron: Yes, that’s one of his famous little jingles for remembering how the Bible is put together. He has several versions of the saying, one of which appears in that passage I just summarized from On Instructing Beginners in Faith. His point is that the Bible tells a single story in many different ways; that it all anticipates or recalls the coming of Jesus and the conversion of our hearts to love. It doesn’t mean that the Old Testament does not have its own integrity as Jewish Scripture; that the story of Abraham, or of Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai, or of David and Saul, or the teachings of the Law and the Prophets and Proverbs, or the prayers of the Psalms, are really only Christian books in disguise. Rather he was looking at them all from their endpoint in a Christian perspective, where the story reaches its culmination, first revealed in the paschal advent of Jesus and then in the still-to-be-realized kingdom of God.

CWR: In the book, you chose to focus on the narratives in the Bible, and leave out the poetry-based prophetic books of the Old Testament, and the epistles of the New Testament (as well as the Gospel of John). Why did you choose to omit these from your survey of Scripture?

Dr. Cameron: The book is not, nor could it be, an introduction to the whole Bible. A book of that size and complexity would put off the very people I am trying to reach: the interested but wary or discouraged beginner.

However, it’s clear that narratives are crucial to the Bible, not only as the most basic literary form underlying it, but also as a kind of gateway into it. Or to shift the metaphor to a favorite image among early Christian teachers, if the Bible is a “tree of life”—recall the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:9), the teachings of Wisdom (Prov. 3:12), and the promise of healing in eternity (Rev. 22:2)—then the trunk of the tree is scriptural narrative, which soon branches out into the more specific texts of holy law, prophetic poetry, apocalyptic visions, apostolic letters, and so on. (That includes the almost mystical elaboration of the stories that we find in books like Hosea—see his picture of the covenant relation like a marriage—or especially John’s Gospel. I left out John because, first, the other Gospels tell the basic story, and second, the mystical elaboration would take too much space.) We can see this in the way the Old Testament leads off with the stories of Genesis and Exodus, and the New Testament begins with the four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.

Stories work differently from other types of literature; they are not like arguments or syllogisms or judgments or catechisms or poetry, though they may contain some of these things. They speak of people’s experiences before ideas. They are concrete and not abstract. Like our own stories from daily life, they grow and flow in time upon the plane of everyday experience, often in ways we can’t explain logically.

We may be very different from the ancient people who wrote the Bible, but we share some vital similarities with them. Besides our common desire for food, need for love, fear of death, and so on, we share delight in storytelling. Everybody loves stories, and everybody learns from stories. So it works as a way into this big Book for everyone. But stories are also vital for forming one’s understanding of the world and of who we are in it. We all find identity when we are able to tell certain stories about ourselves, as individuals and as communities. Note how Jews tell the story of the Patriarchs, Exodus and Sinai to mark their identity, just as we Christians say the Creed every week, which essentially tells a story of who God is and who we are. Stories organize the world so that we can reflect on it and understand it. The Bible at its most basic is a grand story of creation and redemption and life forever, into which we are invited to fit our own stories. For a beginner’s book like this, I took the approach that I take in my classes, which is to invite people into the Bible by first telling and explaining its stories.

CWR: Who are some figures that have helped you delve into the mystery of Scripture more deeply over your life?

Dr. Cameron: There are many, modern and ancient, too many to list. I’ve mentioned Augustine, ever since my early days of faith, mostly for his passion and spirit of unceasing inquiry. Among the ancient teachers, I have fallen deeply in love with Origen, probably the greatest biblical scholar the Church has ever produced, unmatched for his grasp of essentials, concern for the exact language of Scripture, effortless range of understanding, profound depth of spiritual wisdom, and single-minded focus upon exegesis as the path of salvation. However, both he and Augustine have to be read with an understanding of their context and purposes.

Among Protestants, now that I understand the meaning of the Reformation, I always enjoy the biblical insight and passion of Martin Luther, as well the different but equally profound works of John Calvin. I always come away with insights from reading biblical reflections of Søren Kierkegaard. Among historical-critical biblical scholars who instructed me are older ones like Ferdinand Christian Baur, and moderns like Gerhard von Rad, Walter Brueggemann, C.H. Dodd, James Dunn, Leander Keck, and Martin Hengel. Hans Dieter Betz, my teacher at Chicago, taught me a tremendous amount about the ancient world. Among theologians, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer stand out as important readers of the Bible, as well as John Howard Yoder. Two evangelical scholars, Larry Hurtado and Gordon Fee, instructed me deeply in my early days of reading. Among Jewish scholars, Jon Levenson has taught me much, and I still love to read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s subtle and insightful meditations on the Bible.

In the Catholic world, from history I admire the biblical insights and passion for texts in Erasmus. I’ve mentioned Newman, who understood Scripture’s spiritual depths as the setting for spiritual life. Among moderns, Raymond Brown, S.S., has taught me the most about Scripture from a historical perspective; he was a rigorous scholar and lucid writer. Once his commitments in the biblical guild are understood, he is a treasure of scholarly as well as pastoral insight. I am deeply grateful for the Catholic biblical scholars at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, beginning with Carroll Stuhlmeuller, C.P, who was my teacher there, as well as Donald Senior, C.P.

This is a dreadfully short and inadequate list.

CWR: As a scholar and a believer, are there parts of Scripture, or genres, or books, that you find particularly challenging? How about ones that you find particularly compelling or moving?

Dr. Cameron: Great question. Even after 40 years of reading these texts, I find myself still working my way into the apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Daniel and the book of Revelation. They often leave me in a stunned silence and wonderment. Enthralling, disturbing, exciting, but strange, less for the bizarre imagery than for the extremism they represent. But this is not surprising as all apocalyptic literature is created in extreme circumstances of exile and alienation. The “North Star” for interpreting these texts, pointed out to me by a teacher long ago, I don’t remember who, is that they emphatically are not about headlines of destruction in tomorrow’s newspaper, but dream images about God’s promises of victory that will come true in some way they figuratively represent; therefore, they are fundamentally about hope. Well-meaning people who fill civic stadiums (and take money) to discuss biblical prophecy as literal events about to happen are reading Scripture magically and fanatically (and opportunistically), which is wrong and harmful, in my judgment.

After all these years I’ve had so many experiences of reading Scripture in a way that makes me stop, take off my glasses, look up, and shake my head in wonder. Which are best? I am reminded of Erma Bombeck’s memorable column telling each of her three children separately, “You were always my favorite because…” They are all favorites. Perhaps it has to do with context and symmetry with life at the moment of reading. So often I have the experience of reading a text and saying, “This is absolutely unique and irreplaceable.” Recently I reread the saga of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and was just dumbstruck at the artistry of that story more than 2500 years old.

Reading Mark is like no other biblical Lenten experience for me, with its rough but deceptively artful insights into Jesus as suffering servant. But at other times I soar unforgettably with John’s Gospel, especially during great feast of the Church year like Christmas and Easter, which is exactly when the Church invites us to read John. I read and recite the Psalms on a daily basis and cannot imagine not having these words to train and inspire prayer. The prophecies of Hosea and Second Isaiah are unalloyed marvels of poetry and daring insight. To behold the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is like seeing a majestic mountain (and putting it into practice like climbing that mountain—not for the faint of heart). But for depth of engagement through the years, probably nothing has compared to reading the major letters of Paul, in particular Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians. The word that comes to mind is ferment—Paul is a fermentative thinker, yeasty, bursting with growth and insight and nourishment. Every line brings new vistas of insight into this extraordinary life of faith in Christ into which we have been called with him. Let me point for example to his searing confession of faith’s desire “to be found in Christ Jesus” in Philippians 3, or the lilting hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Astonishing!

It is a quite remarkable experience to feel that one never touches the bottom of these texts even after many readings. One can return to the same portions of Scripture and time after time find new truth, new grace, new spirit, new food. I feel the spirit of the wisdom teacher who wrote that enormous and long Psalm 119, where he marvels at the beauty and power of the Word, and cannot stop repeating different expressions of his fascination and love. The most inspiring imagery, however, speaks of seeking and longing for Lady Wisdom in the books of Proverbs, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon, where she invites us to love her passionately and to crave her riches more than fine gold.

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About Paul Senz 138 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

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